March 7, 2014

Have you signed the right will? Why you should check your signature

By Martin Holdsworth

Where there’s a will there may well be a relative who feels that they have been unfairly cut out of an inheritance.

As a lawyer with more than 20 years’ experience of dealing with disputes over the validity of a will, I have seen many reasons for challenging bequests – ranging from mental capacity issues through to allegations of fraud and forgery.

A more unusual scenario is where there has been a clerical error, or mix up in signatures when the will was originally drawn up.  And a landmark Supreme Court ruling over signature mistakes on a will brought far reaching consequences for contested estates.

When Alfred and Maureen Rawlings mistakenly signed each other’s wills they could not possibly have imagined that the mix up would be dragged through three courts.

The late couple instructed their solicitor to draft their wills back in 1999. In what is known as a mirror will arrangement, Mr Rawlings left his entire estate to his wife provided she survived him for 28 days and Mrs Rawlings stipulated the same. When they both died, Terry Marley, a very close family friend who they viewed as a son, was named as the sole beneficiary of their whole estate.

On face value this should have been quite straight forward. However, by mistake their solicitor handed them each other’s wills to sign and, despite being witnessed, the clerical error was not spotted.

After Mrs Rawlings death in 2003, her estate passed to her husband and again the mistake wasn’t picked up. Only in 2006, when Mr Rawlings died, was the signature error noticed.

Up until his death, Mr Rawlings lived in a house jointly owned with Mr Marley. After his death, his estate – valued at £70,000 – and the house, passed automatically to Mr Marley.

The couples’ two sons, Terry and Michael tried to have the will declared invalid because they said it was signed by the wrong person. If they had been successful, their father would be deemed as having died intestate (not having made a will) and they would have inherited the £70,000.

Mr Marley began probate proceedings requesting that the court should rectify the will to reflect Mr Rawlings’ wishes.

His claim was dismissed and the judge declared that Mr Rawlings’ will was not valid. A further appeal to the Court of Appeal was also unsuccessful.

Mr Marley then appealed to the Supreme Court which considered whether the solicitor who had overseen the wills had made a clerical error. Lord Neuberger ruled that Mr and Mrs Rawlings wills should be treated in the same way as a commercial contract  in that an obvious oversight should not be allowed to invalidate their wishes.

So what are the consequences of this ruling?  Currently the law states that a valid will has to be signed, but now following this decision there will be scope for challenge should such a mix-up occur again. It is also likely that this Supreme Court ruling has paved the way for more claims to be brought to uphold or amend wills which previously would not have been possible.

At Jones Myers we always reiterate to our clients the importance of making a will, although it still surprises me how many people don’t see it as a priority.

Disputes are on the rise – often due to the more complex family arrangements such as children from second marriages – and I see at first hand the pain and anguish families can go through when a will is contested.

Having a valid, effective document incorporating your intentions and wishes will make the process easier for relatives and should help avoid lengthy and costly disputes. The lesson from the Rawlings’ case is that you must ensure that you are happy with every aspect of the will, including signatures – your own and those of witnesses – and that you flag up with your solicitor any concerns at the time.

However, if you find that you are facing a will or estate dispute, then our team of specialists has the expertise to help.

If you would like to talk to us please contact Martin Holdsworth or Laura Short on 0113 246 0055 or email